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We must protect endangered rural mayors

Small-town maires have launched a charm offensive to highlight their work and fight back against what they see as efforts to force them out of office permanently.

They argue that maintaining these tiny administrative units is important to life in the countryside.

Cédric Szabo, head of the Association des Maires Ruraux de France (AMRF), which represents around 10,000 maires in charge of communes with fewer than 3,500 residents, says mayors of small rural communes are an essential expression of democracy.

“It is vital to maintain this system because it means people know exactly who to turn to for assistance with everything, even disputes with neighbours,” he said. “People in small rural communes know that someone is looking after them.”

There are 35,228 communes in mainland France, and each has a mairie, a maire, a secretary and a full set of councillors. 

About 34,600 communes are home to fewer than 5,000 people and, of those, 31,500 have populations under 2,000. There are around 20,000 communes in France with populations of fewer than 500. Some are home to just a few dozen individuals.

Mayors receive expenses for their work on a sliding scale related to the number of residents. For example, a mayor of a commune of between 1,000 and 3,499 residents receives €1,635 a month. The number of maires stepping down from their positions has risen 55% since 2014, according to figures reported by Agence France Press.

But this is not accurate, says Mr Szabo. “Most maires are staying,” he said. “But it’s true that the pressure is mounting.”

One source of discontent is being forced to work with the maires of other communes. Successive governments have moved towards amalgamating smaller communes to save money and increase efficiency.

Mr Szabo said: “Rural maires have always had to do this on some issues because it’s impossible for a small commune to do everything alone.School buses, for example, are best organised inter-communally.

“So intercommunalité has always existed but now it is being forced on communes, and working in a way you haven’t chosen, with people you haven’t chosen to work with ... that doesn’t always come easily.”

La Dépêche du Midi daily newspaper in the Midi-Pyrénées has given the phenomenon a name: le blues des maires. Causes cited include decreasing budgets and power, and the  increased role now given to ‘intercommunalités’ – which have in some places regrouped up to 50 maires.

Stuck in meetings with dozens of other maires, many feel they do not have a genuine voice.

“The 2015 ‘Loi NOTRe’ gave more power and more money to intercommunalités. That was a big change imposed from Paris that came on top of a whole raft of other legislation decreasing the power of small maires,” Mr Szabo said.

“We’ve also seen the formal creation of ‘métropoles’ and the enlargement of the ‘régions’ which has further centralised decision-making.

“Small mairies can manage the specific affairs of small communes in a way that doesn’t happen when administration is centralised.”

He is also in favour of mayors being elected multiple times. Currently, they serve six years and can be re-elected without limit, but proposals to limit their mandat to three consecutive terms in communes of more than 3,500
residents are under review.

“Only being able to serve one or two mandates would not allow maires to get anything done. Large projects take longer.”

He points to the village of Vicq-sur-Breuilh in Haute Vienne, where Christine de Neuville is maire. “I visited recently and what she has done is nothing short of a little miracle.

“The village was dying, but since being elected in 2001, she has set up a shop, a restaurant, and a creche.

“She’s also renovated the old presbytery, and reopened it as an art museum which now attracts around 10,000 visitors a year. There are floral decorations, and more businesses are opening. It’s a success, a little miracle.”

This is why maires being able to run for office multiple times is not anti-democratic, he says. “Residents can vote a maire out if they prefer someone else. That is real democracy.Voter turnout for municipal elections in the larger cities is around 55% but in rural communes it is typically very high, up to 90%, which means rural maires have great legitimacy.

“Anyone can challenge a maire and run against them at the elections.

“The fact that so few people do is a reflection of how few people want to take the job on. There are maires who have been elected for 40 years and can’t find anyone to replace them.”

Mr Szabo is not a maire himself. “I do not have that honour. Our role at the federation is to defend rural
communes in their current form.

“This move to centralise power must be resisted, as must the obsession with reducing the number of communes.

“Mayors of rural communes manage 92% of French territory but do not get enough money to do it properly.

“Technocrats want to reduce the number of fonctionnaires all over France, but they represent rural
development through democracy.

“The president says he supports start-ups, and communes are just like start-ups, so why doesn’t he like them more? Because they’re independent of government, that’s why.”

Several rural mayors are worried about Brexit because many smaller communes have been re-dynamised by incomers from the UK and from all over the EU.

“Mayors are also concerned that Brexit will increase their administrative burden and that if UK nationals lose the right to run in municipal elections, there will be a shortfall of elected councillors,” he added.

Currently, 900 British people are local councillors in France. They have been allowed to continue in the positions until the next local elections in 2020.

“Many Britons living in rural France play a healthy role in their local mairies. We get a lot of letters from maires about this issue. It’s just another problem facing maires in rural France,” said Mr Szabo.

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